Short Story: Gertrude the Great

The girls circled Trudy hurling insults at her. They made fun of her dirty skin, her name (it was short for Gertrude, it was her grandmother’s name), her gym clothes (plain sweatpants and a plain t-shirt from a five-and dime store), and her “nigger hair.”

Every insult flew through the air and stuck to Trudy’s skin like glue.  She let them talk. She had no choice. She was a seventh grader and barely five feet tall, too skinny to be a threat. She waited for the gym teacher to come by or the bell to ring. Either would end the hell that was circling her.

The teacher came first and cleared everyone out of the locker room. Trudy stayed behind, shoving her school clothes into her locker blocked only moments ago by Rebecca and her mean girl tribe. She tried to shove her book bag in, too, but this is A day so her book bag is too bulky for the long, skinny gym lockers. In her frustration, she didn’t hear Mrs. D, her gym teacher, come up behind her.

Mrs. D placed a hand on Trudy’s shoulder. Trudy swung around ready to hit someone with her bag. Mrs. D jumped back.

“Take it easy, Trudy.”

“Sorry, Mrs. D.”

Trudy paused at the locker room door that led to the gym. She looked down at her white shirt and navy blue sweatpants, the required clothes for gym and wished she could put her own clothes back on and go home.

“Don’t be scared of them, Trudy.”

“Easy for you to say, you’re the teacher. They’re scared of you.”

“Trudy, you’re braver than you think.”

“Yeah, right,” she said. Mrs. D sat her down on a bench nearby. “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be the only Black student here. But you come to school every day. You do your work. And you stand there with your shoulders back when the other students–”

Trudy interrupted her.  “And teachers,” she said as she swung her feet back and forth.

“Yes…and teachers…try to intimidate you. That takes guts, kid.”

Mrs. D’s words summoned tears down Trudy’s face. “Look, I can’t tell you what you should do,” Mrs. D continued, “But I can tell you this: you’ve got brains. You’re an individual. They are puppets.” Trudy gave Mrs. D a quizzical look. Mrs. D got up from the bench and leaned her back against the door to the gym. “Cut the strings,” she winked at Trudy and pushed the door open with her elbow.

Trudy recalled the conversation she had with her grandmother the day they moved into the Presidential Grove neighborhood. The streets were all named after presidents and Trudy’s family was the first black family to move in to the all-white neighborhood. Trudy was angry with her parents and wanted to go back home. She missed her old friends and none of the kids on her block wanted to play with her.

She’d spent the entire summer sitting along on her front porch reading or playing with her dolls. Trudy didn’t want to be at that stupid new school, but her father said she would get a better education at Monroe Junior High. Trudy didn’t see anything wrong with the education she was getting at Medgar Evers Junior High. But her father ended the conversation by saying he knew what was best for her and that was that.

One day she was in her room crying and her grandmother came and sat down next to her on her bed. “I’m so proud that you have my name,” her grandmother said. Trudy kept crying. “You’re all the best parts of me,” she said as she wiped Trudy’s tears. “I am?” Trudy’s grandmother nodded. “I know you’re scared. But it’s going to be okay.”

“No, it isn’t, Grandma. Everyone here hates me. The kids won’t even play with me. You don’t know what that’s like.” Trudy’s grandmother raised her eyebrows at Trudy. “Oh,” said Trudy, “sorry, Grandma.”

“It’s okay. You know, black folks have been struggling a long time with the white man, a long time.”

“But I don’t wanna struggle! I just want to go back to my old neighborhood. I didn’t struggle there.” Trudy began to cry again. Her grandmother pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and wiped Trudy’s face.

“Trudy, listen. I know how you feel. Every black person knows how you feel. This fight isn’t anything any of us haven’t been through. And if there’s some folks ain’t been through it yet, they will. But you just have to keep moving. And you can do it, know why?”

Trudy shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. Her grandmother put her finger under Trudy’s chin and raised her granddaughter’s face to meet her own. “Because you’ve got brains and heart and can’t nobody make you feel bad ‘bout yourself unless you let ‘em.”

Trudy put her head on her grandmother’s chest and sobbed. “Awww, little one,” her grandmother said as she rubbed her back, “It’s okay. You let it all out. Have a good, snotty cry.” Trudy let out a little laugh and wiped her nose with her grandmother’s handkerchief. “Then,” Gertrude said, “you go into that school with your head held high and show them what Hendersons are made of.”

Trudy’s thoughts were interrupted by Mrs. D. “Trudy, you’re late. Class is starting.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Trudywalked out to the gym. The noise came to a halt as Mrs. D called the class to order and announced a game of dodge ball. Trudy’s stomach jumped. She was THE best dodge ball player in her old neighborhood. Trudy is little, but she can throw a dodge ball with the force of ten men. Everyone wanted to be on her team back at home (no one wanted to get hit by those whoppers she threw).

Mrs. D picked two captains: Rebecca (the head of the most popular girl group in school) and Jimmy (a boy with freckles and buck teeth). The teams were picked and, of course, no one wanted Trudy. Mrs. D put her on Jimmy’s team and the game began.

Trudy was nimble, dodging every ball thrown at her with ease. But half of her team was down within minutes. When Rebecca’s team scored again, Jimmy’s team went into strategy mode and tried not to include Trudy, but she pushed her way into their circle. “Give me the ball if you want to win the game,” she said.

“No way,” Jimmy said, “Can’t no pickaninny play dodge ball.” Trudy used her quick reflexes to snatch the ball from Jimmy. “I’m gonna win this game for my team, and when I do, you aren’t ever gonna call me that again.”

Jimmy laughed. Trudy looked at him and faked throwing the ball. Oooohs and aaahs erupted from his friends. Mrs. D blew the whistle and the game was back in session. Trudy threw the first ball at Rebecca’s best friend, Amy. It hit her in the arm with a loud Twing! A huge red welt appeared spread across Amy’s arm like a rash.

One down. Six more to go.

Twing.

Five more.

Twing. Twing.

Three left.

Jimmy and his teammates started cheering Trudy on. Soon Rebecca was the only one left standing on her team. Rebecca paced like a caged animal. Trudy followed her with her eyes and faked a throw, hoping Rebecca was as predictable as she looked. It worked. Rebecca moved right. Game over, Trudy thought. She threw right. Twing! The ball hit Rebecca in the center of her face. The game ended and Trudy’s teammates erupted in cheers.

Trudy watched as Rebecca asked to go to the nurse to put an ice pack on her face. Rebecca went to the locker room and Mrs. D followed her but paused for a moment to look back at Trudy. Trudy looked at Mrs. D and made a scissor motion with her first two fingers.  Mrs. D winked at Trudy and smiled.

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